The U.S. Department of Justice is shuttering the China Initiative, its controversial probe of Chinese national-security threats that critics say unfairly targeted academics of Asian descent.
In announcing the end of the Trump-era investigation, Matthew Olsen, assistant attorney general for national security, acknowledged its impact of American researchers and universities. “We have heard that these prosecutions — and the public narrative they create — can lead to a chilling atmosphere for scientists and scholars that damages the scientific enterprise in this country,” he said.
“Safeguarding the integrity and transparency of research institutions is a matter of national security. But so is ensuring that we continue to attract the best and the brightest researchers and scholars to our country from all around the world — and that we all continue to honor our tradition of academic openness and collaboration.”
Olsen said the government would pursue a broader and less-prosecutorial strategy focused on threats beyond just China, including from the governments of Iran, North Korea, and Russia. Here’s more coverage of Olsen’s announcement
A few more thoughts…
While Olsen recognized concerns that the China Initiative “fueled a narrative of intolerance and bias,” he said his own review of the probe did not find that prejudice led to the grant-fraud cases. But academic and civil-rights communities say officials need to take a closer look at how anti-Asian sentiment may have driven prosecutions — nine out of 10 of those charged were Chinese or Chinese American.
Zhengyu Huang, president of the Committee of 100, a group of prominent Chinese Americans, said “much more work needs to be done to ensure that all cases being prosecuted are based solely on evidence and not on perception.”
APA Justice Task Force called on the Biden administation to continue to engage in a dialogue with Asian American and academic groups:
The work to address racial profiling against Asian Americans is far from over; in fact, it is just beginning. The flawed China Initiative has caused immeasurable damage to victims, and eroded the trust and confidence Asian American and academic communities placed in law enforcement.
Don’t expect an immediate thaw to the chilling effect of the investigation.
Half of Chinese and Chinese American scientists at American research universities surveyed over the summer by the University of Arizona and the Committee of 100 reported feeling “considerable fear or anxiety” that they were being “surveilled” by the U.S. government. Researchers have told me that they did not apply for federal grants or steered clear of international collaborations, worried their background could flag them for scrutiny
Those apprehensions likely won’t disappear overnight. Anming Hu, a University of Tennessee professor acquitted
of China Initiative charges, told Knox News
that although he was “encouraged” by the Olsen announcement, researchers would “keep their eyes open” for other tangible steps that the government was moving away from its adversarial approach.
The announcement doesn’t mean the end of prosecutions of academics, but it raises the bar. Critics said the China Initiative was effectively criminalizing researchers’ paperwork errors. Going forward, the department will use broader enforcement tools, such as civil and administrative measures, reserving prosecutions for cases that raise national-security threats.
In his remarks, Olsen said if researchers “voluntarily correct prior material omissions” it would “counsel against” prosecutions, seemingly opening the door for academics to update filings without the most serious penalties.
Not everyone welcomed the news. In a statement, Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, called the decision “another instance of weakness from an administration more concerned with being politically correct than protecting Americans.”